"I hope you don't mind us taking advantage of y'all's fine hospitality." Amelia Howards murmured, as she ducked through my front door. She brushed her hands over her skirt -- it looked as tired and worn as she did.
"Not a bit -- we're glad to have you." I waved her into the house and cast a wary eye toward the north road. Then my gaze dropped to Amelia's children. The two little girls looked frightened, but the boy stuck his tongue out at me. I pursed my lips; the boy's manners had deteriorated since his father left to join the Confederate soldiers.
"Amelia! Darlin'! Come on in and make yourself at home!" Etta Rose rushed from my sitting room and greeted the newcomers. It should have irritated me to see her welcoming people in as if this was her home, but today was not a day for squabbles. Etta Rose took Amelia and her children to settle them in.
I left my door open and walked across the porch to lean against a column. A slave boy sat on the steps, twiddling his thumbs and staring into the distance. He was as uneasy as I was.
"Any sign of trouble, Matthew?" I asked him.
"No, ma'am," he said, twisting his neck to look up at me before dropping back into his vigilant position.
"You're a fine boy, Matthew."
"It's worryin' you, ain't it? You think the Union soldiers are comin' here?" His bluntness -- naming the dreaded event when everyone else skirted around it -- was a relief to me. I could feel my shoulders drop and a sigh escaped me.
"I don't see why they would skip any plantations -- especially since there are no men here to protect them." I bit my lip. This was not a time to think about my Joe. Or Amelia's Sam. Or Etta Rose's five sons. Or any of the others.
"But they wouldn't hurt women, would they?" Matthew's questioning face reminded me of the chivalrous man who had raised him.
"I don't know, Matthew. Not every boy was raised by a man as fine as your papa." I turned my head to the house behind me, hugging my column as I did so. "And I am afraid for Holly Stone Plantation."
I gazed toward the road again. A dust cloud came into view, and I stiffened. But Matthew's eyes were better than my own.
"It's more people from the other plantations," he said.
"I see." The tension lowered, but not all the way. One of these days, the dust cloud wouldn't be a false alarm. I suddenly felt very, very weary. "Send them in when they arrive." I released my column and returned to my guests. Etta Rose would want to know that more were coming. And someone should see to refreshments.
An hour later, I stood in my bedroom. I leaned against the bedpost and stared at Joe's wardrobe. I knew what was in it. Two Sharps, a Colt, and a Springfield. The rest of the rifles had gone with him when he signed up under Longstreet.
Why I sat here, I didn't know. Maybe it made me feel close to Joe. I missed him.
"I wish my Sam were here." Amelia's voice startled me, and I spun to see her in the doorway. She had an apron on now, and she brushed her hands over it by habit. "He would know what to do."
I knew just how she felt, and I crossed the room to wrap my arms around her. "We'll be fine, Amelia."
Her chin trembled. "I'm grateful to you, Eliza, for lettin' us come here. I was so afraid to be at Belle's Creek alone." Tears sprang to her eyes. "Did you hear? Adelaide Thompson says they ran all night to get to Holly Stone. The Union soldiers were burnin' her home as she escaped. Can you imagine?" She lowered her head and her voice. "The Union is pillagin' everything."
My stomach twisted as I thought of my own Holly Stone. The land was a part of Joe and me. Joe loved it like a grandfather and cared for it as a child. Was the Union going to reduce all of us to a shell? Even our lands? Our homes?
Amelia closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "I always feel safer here, Eliza. And I knew you would know what to do."
That's why they were here, wasn't it? All of them -- they thought I could take care of them. Oh, Lord, help us. I raised my chin and smiled so Amelia wouldn't see that I wasn't the capable leader she thought I was. At the moment, all I wanted to do was to curl up and cry for my Joe.
"Let's go down and join the others." I patted her arm and led the way down the stairs, forcing my voice to be cheerful. "And somebody needs to check on the children. Who knows what sort of mischief they might be into? I think I saw most of them playin' beside the house..."
"Miss Eliza! Miss Eliza! They're comin'! They're comin'!" Matthew's voice screeched, piercing through the open windows into the house. I could hear the fear in it.
Below me in the sitting room, I heard Adelaide's wail of dismay. Amelia's fingers clutched my arm. I threw a glance up at her face. It was as pale as a corpse.
But her blue eyes stared into mine and she lifted her chin bravely. "I'm ready," she whispered.
Ready for what?
Another wail burst out from the sitting room. Suddenly anger flashed through me, and I knew exactly what to do. "Not on my watch," I said through gritted teeth. I gathered my skirts in my fists and shoved my way past Amelia, running up the steps into my bedroom.
Amelia followed me. I flung open Joe's wardrobe. She nodded and reached for a rifle with pale, trembling hands.
Footsteps pounded up the steps, and Etta Rose appeared in the doorway. She was out of breath but fierce. "Give me one!" she demanded.
Amelia took a Sharps, and Etta Rose grabbed the Colt. I took the two others and raced for the stairs. "Somebody get the children into the house!" I shouted.
Bursting into the sitting room, I held my rifles high. "Quick, ladies!"
But to my surprise, several of them were on their feet, already armed with weapons brought from their own homes.
"We're with you, Eliza," one of them said.
"Miss Eliza!" Matthew's cry spurred us into action. I could hear pounding hoofbeats.
"The side door!" I cried, tossing a Sharps to another Southern belle.
The women followed me through the house, out the side door, and into the yard. Etta Rose drew a Confederate flag from her apron and unfurled it. Hardly stopping for a breath, we swept around the side of the house toward the front just as the Union soldiers rode up.
There must have been thirty of them. I could see the looks of surprise on their faces. One man, third from center, grinned and rubbed his beard as if eager to see how this little scene would play out. The center man, wearing the uniform of a major, only frowned.
"Am I to assume the Confederate forces have voted-in a new uniform?" He looked annoyed as he surveyed the dresses blocking his way.
"You are to assume that this plantation is outside of your jurisdiction and move on." I leveled my rifle at his heart.
"On whose authority." His eyes bored into my own, and I heard a chuckle from one of his men.
"On the authority of wives and mothers. Take your raiders elsewhere." As I spoke, I heard the clicks of rifles cocking on either side of me.
"Well, well." The major pulled his lips into a snarl. "You see, men, what we are fighting. These are not ladies. This is nothing but a pack of uncivilized vixens."
My eyes fell on two prisoners in their midst. Both faces were unfamiliar to me, but that didn't matter. Either of them could have served next to my Joe, and that made them dear to me. They were gaunt and weak, covered in dirt. One man's face was almost completely wrapped in a dirty bandage, and he seemed unsteady on his feet. I shifted my gaze back to the major. "On the contrary. We invite you to partake of our southern hospitality. I and my friends invite you to a home-cooked meal -- provided you follow some guidelines we lay out."
"Mmmm-mmmm," said the man who was third from center. He was still enjoying the scene. He patted his stomach and grinned at the others.
"What guidelines might that be?" The major cocked his head at me, and his eyes bored as hard as ever into mine.
"You take nothing by force. You harm nothing and no one." I waved my rifle toward the two gray-coated men. "And the prisoners eat as well."
"What if we forget a few of those rules?" the major queried.
"Then you will be the first one I shoot."
For a long time, the major said nothing. I hated the way his gaze dug into me -- hated it so deeply that I held his eyes without a flinch.
Finally, he jerked his head over his shoulder. "Peters! Cauldridge! Take a few men and ride around. Make sure this isn't a trap. The rest of you -- dismount but keep your weapons by you." Under his breath, he added, "We could use a good meal." Then he fixed me with his cold eyes once more. "If you so much as threaten one of my men, I swear we will shoot every last one of you -- women or not."
I lowered my weapon, lifted my chin, and answered with the most powerful come-back I could imagine: the menu. "Roasted duck. Biscuits and gravy. Beans. Corn. Buttered grits..." The two Confederate prisoners lifted their eyes to mine with such a look of hunger and hope that I felt my stomach knot.
I waved my small band toward the house. All of the women lowered their weapons except Etta Rose. I put my hand on her barrel and pushed it downward. She met my eyes defiantly for a moment and then stalked toward the kitchens. I watched her go, hoping she would be able to stay out of trouble.
Amelia's gentle fingers brushed my arm. "I knew you could do it," she whispered. "I knew you would know what to do. And those poor prisoners!!!"
"It's not over yet, Amelia. One wrong move and..." I glanced over my shoulder at the dismounting soldiers.
Amelia drew a shaky breath and smiled. "Nobody can resist my biscuits and gravy, can they?"
"Of course not." I threw all my confidence into those words and strode toward the house. "We will be fine." I beckoned Amelia to follow me. "And somewhere those prisoners' wives and children will be as grateful as we would be if we knew that someone fed our men a good meal."
The Union major and I reached my front door at the same time. He took his hat off and bowed slightly, keeping his eyes fixed on mine. "After you, vixen."
Joe would never have allowed anyone to speak to me like that, but I merely thanked the major and led the way into the house. I could swallow a few insults for the sake of my home and friends.
As the smells wafted up from the kitchen, the look in the major's eyes grew less harsh. The Union men ate an exorbitant amount of food -- and, from her position in the kitchen, Etta Rose muttered every Bible verse on greed that she could think of -- but it was worth it. The Confederate prisoners were tenderly cared for by all of us who wished we could see our own men soon. And when the soldiers mounted up a few hours later and galloped away, I knew Holly Stone was safe. This time.